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316                                                                                                         B. POLEVOI

The crews were roused before dawn. Army Headquar-
ters had received information that on the day before a
large German aircraft unit had arrived in the area where
the Soviet tanks had broken through. Ground observa-
tions and intelligence reports justified the assumption
that the German Command appreciated the danger
created by the break-through of the Soviet tanks at the
very base of the Kursk Salient and had called up the
Richthofen Air Division, which was manned by the finest
aces in Germany. This division had been last routed near
Stalingrad, but had been re-formed somewhere deep in
the German rear. The wing was warned that the enemy
was strong in numbers, equipped with the latest type of
machines—Fokke-Wolf-190's—and was highly experi-
enced in battle. It was ordered to be on the alert and to
provide reliable air cover for the second echelon of the
mobile forces that had begun that night to follow the tanks
through the breach.
Richthofen! That name was well known to experienced
airmen as that of the division that enjoyed the special
patronage of Hermann Goering. The Germans sent it
whenever their forces were being hard pressed. The
flyers of this division, some of whom had conducted their
piratical operations over Republican Spain, were fierce
and skilful fighters, and were reputed to be a dangerous
foe.
"The men are saying that some sort of 'Richtovens' have
been sent against us. Gee! I hope we meet 'em soon! We'll
show 'em 'RichtovensT' declaimed Petrov in the messroom,
hurriedly swallowing his food and glancing at the open
window where Raya, the waitress, was picking flowers
from a large bunch and placing them in shell bodies that
had been polished with chalk until they shone.
It goes without saying that this defiance was hurled
at the "Richtovens" not for the benefit of Alexei who
was finishing his coffee, but of the girl who was busy
with the flowers and was now and again casting sidelong
glances at handsome, ruddy Petrov. Meresyev watched
them with an indulgent smile, but he disliked jokes and
frivolous talk where serious business was concerned.